The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” took listeners on an enchanting and moving voyage into love and fine singing of Puccini-like lyricism

May 1, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – who is The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog – went to the recent production of the Madison Opera and filed this review, with photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

I looked forward enough to Madison Opera’s premiere production of Daniel Catán’s Spanish-languageFlorencia en el Amazonas” that I attended both performances at Overture Hall this past weekend.

Based on repeated hearings of the recording and numerous favorable reviews of other productions, I was fairly certain that I would be in for a treat. I was not disappointed.

The action takes place on a boat on the Amazon heading for Manaus where the title character Florenica (below), an opera singer of high repute, is to perform.

Other passengers (below), unaware of her presence onboard, also have the opera house as their destination in order to hear her sing.

Rosalba, her unauthorized biographer, and Paula and Alvaro, a bickering older couple, are joined onboard by the Captain, his nephew Arcadio, and a Puckish character Riolobo, who acts as narrator and supervises the magic in this tale of magical realism.

Below, starting at the top and moving clockwise, are: Kanopy Dancers, Ashraf Sewailam (The Captain), Mackenzie Whitney (Arcadio), Rachel Sterrenberg (Rosalba), Elizabeth Caballero (Florencia Grimaldi), Adriana Zabala (Paula), Levi Hernandez (Alvaro) and Nmon Ford (Riolobo)

The boat (our life) floats along the Amazon (life itself) in this parable of longing, regret, the fickleness of love, love lost and regained, and transformation.

Aiding in the unfolding of the tale are water sprites, referred to at times as Amazons. Six willowy dancers from the Kanopy troupe did not seem particularly Amazonian, but their waving of billowy fabric evoked the river and their retrieving twice from the water careless Rosalba’s precious manuscript added to the magic.

Riolobo and the sprites also bring Alvaro back to life after he appears to drown during a storm.  (We should be attentive to water sprites since Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” which also features these denizens, is on the schedule for next year’s season.)

And, in the end, just when you think that all conflicts have been resolved and love is at hand, the boat reaches Manaus only to find it impossible to make landfall due not only to cholera but also to rabies, scurvy, leprosy and beriberi. Florencia’s transformation into a butterfly (below) ends the voyage.

This odd but magical plot is a vehicle for lush, rhapsodic music by a Mexican composer whose life ended too soon. The orchestral and vocal writing featured soaring melodies, which at times reminded me of Puccini had his life extended further into the 20th century. The orchestral writing continually evokes the river and flowing water, reminding me of music of the Impressionists.

John DeMain ably led the wonderfully sounding Madison Symphony Orchestra.  He once again proved himself to be a master of pacing, tempo and dynamics.

The opera was very evenly cast. Nmon Ford (below top on right), as Riolobo, had a rich baritone voice and an impressive physicality. His transformation at the end of the first act into a feather-clad river spirit (below bottom) was hypnotic.

As Rosalba, Rachel Sterrenberg (below, top right), who made a memorable appearance last season as the wife Chan in “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” was a soprano of great flexibility who rendered her character’s opulent melodic lines with mounting ecstasy. Hers was a thrilling performance.

Her foil, full-voiced tenor Mackenzie Whitney (below, bottom left) as Arcadio, produced some of the most Puccini-like moments of sheer soaring lyricism.

Their duets, including a rather dark anti-love duet, were  highlights of the work. Catán’s writing for mixed voices is inspired, and all of the ensemble numbers – duets, a quintet, a septet – are entrancing.

Baritone Levi Hernandez as Alvaro and mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala as his wife, Paula, had moments of bickering and moments of tenderness. His robust vocalization perfectly complemented the creamy richness of hers. Zabala’s second act lament was very touching.

Bass Ashraf Sewailam, in his debut appearance with Madison Opera, produced some of the best singing of the show. He was both profound and lyrical with a total lack of affectation. His acting was subtle, and his outstanding performance demands his return.

Elizabeth Caballero as the diva Florencia Grimaldi was impassioned, focused yet fluid, sumptuous and rapturous. Her ravishing singing, particularly during her metamorphosis — heard in another production in the YouTube video at the bottom — was truly moving.

The set, lighting, projections and costumes were all understated and perfectly blended. The only false step was what appeared to be coffins flying through the air out of Manaus. It took me a moment to realize they were intended to be floating in the river.

The audience seemed enchanted and moved by the opera. I was, too. Let’s have more works like this.

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Classical music: It’s Valentine’s Day 2018. Let us now praise musical couples and say what music we would play to celebrate romantic love

February 14, 2018
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ALERT: If you are a fan of new music, you might not want to miss a FREE concert this Thursday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall by the UW-Madison Contemporary Chamber Ensemble.

The program of “Ideas and Landscapes,” assembled and directed by UW’s award-winning composer Laura Schwendinger, includes works by UW students and alumni as well as a world premiere of a work for solo oboe by Schwendinger herself.

For more details about the composers, the performers and the complete program, go to:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/contemporary-chamber-ensemble/

By Jacob Stockinger

It is Valentine’s Day 2018, and music plays a big role in celebrating the holiday — as the portrait of Cupid (below) expresses.

This week, musician and teacher Miles Hoffman was featured by National Public Radio (NPR) on the program “Morning Edition” with a most appropriate story about famous musical couples who were also linked romantically.

The Ear was particularly pleased that a same-sex couple  – British composer Benjamin Britten (below left) and British tenor Peter Pears (below right) — was recognized during this time when the homophobic administration of President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence keeps attacking the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people under the guise of protecting and promoting religious tolerance. The leaders use the concept of religious freedom as camouflage for bigotry, zealotry and prejudice. 

But more conventional and traditional couples were also recognized, and deservedly so.

Here is a link to the story that also contains some wonderful musical samples:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/02/13/585121135/classical-musics-greatest-love-stories-on-and-offstage

And here is what The Ear wants to know:

First: Can you think of other musical couples – especially local ones — to single out for recognition on Valentine’s Day? The Karp family as well as pianists-singers Bill Lutes and Martha Fischer plus singers Cheryl Bensman Rowe and Paul Rowe, conductor Kyle Knox and Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Naha Greenholtz, and violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino and cellist Leonardo Altino all come immediately to mind. But surely there are others The Ear has overlooked.

Second: What piece of classical music would you listen to or play in order to express love for your Valentine?

Leave the names and information, with a YouTube link if possible, in the COMMENT section.

Happy Valentine’s Day!!


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Classical music: The UW’s fifth annual Schubertiade traced the composer’s entire career with lovely singing and beautiful playing

January 31, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The annual “Schubertiade” has become not only a firm tradition but also invariably one of the highlights of each season. And so it was again on last Sunday afternoon on-stage at the UW-Madison’s Mills Hall.

These programs have been organized, run and performed by that magnificent couple (below), Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes.

Each plays the piano and Martha also sings (below).

For this year’s fifth annual Schubertiade, the program was not just a replica of the musicales that Franz Schubert (1797-1828) and his friends would enjoy. It was instead an extra-long venture (running almost three hours) in chronological comprehensiveness, offering one or more selections from each successive year of the composer’s creative span (1812-28). It was funded this year, by the way, by the generous Ann Boyer.

The result was a mixture of 21 solo songs, three vocal ensembles, two chamber works and three pieces for four-hand piano duo—the last played, of course, by our founding couple.

There was one guest singer, mezzo-soprano Rachel Wood (below), a sensitive artist who teaches at UW-Whitewater, but whose vibrato was somewhat excessive. Otherwise, the performers were faculty members or students at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music, and all of them were simply wonderful.

Of the two instrumental ensemble pieces, one was an adaptation of Schubert’s Sonatina written for violin and piano but played in an adaptation for cello by Parry Karp (below).

The other was the superb Quartettsatz (Quartet Movement), played with mature power by the Hunt Quartet (below), made up of graduate students.

The three ensemble items were delightful novelties. The first was Schubert’s rewrite of a trio, Die Advokaten (below), in which two lawyers squeeze their fees out of a rich client.

Another was a charming soprano duet. The third was a vocal quartet with piano, Des Tages Weihe (Consecration of the Day), rich in ensemble beauty. (You can hear the piece on the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The songs were also a mix of very familiar and rarely heard, so many of them rich experiences. It is daunting to single out exceptional ones, for there was so much lovely singing and there were so many masterpieces. Personally, I found myself particularly moved by the absolutely gripping performance of Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) by soprano Claire Powling (below).

And I really admired the beautiful singing of young soprano Talia Engstrom and veteran tenor Benjamin Liupiaogo. Beyond the solo performances, though, was an interesting expansion of the Erlkönig done by four singers cast in distinct “roles” in the text.

After the whole company took bows (below), there was the customary finale in the song An die Musik (To Music) in which the audience joined the singers.

Long may this wonderful Schubertian tribute that the founding couple has created continue!


Classical music: For reviving and securing Bach Around the Clock, The Ear names Marika Fischer Hoyt as “Musician of the Year” for 2017

December 30, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Regular readers of this blog know how much The Ear likes to recognize community-based initiatives, amateur participation, and events that are affordable or free to the public and so help build and widen the audience for classical music.

On all those counts, the Musician of the Year for 2017 goes to Marika Fischer Hoyt (below) who revived Bach Around the Clock and has given it a seemingly secure future.

In Madison, Bach Around the Clock was originally sponsored and put on for several years by Wisconsin Public Radio’s music director Cheryl Dring. But when Dring left for another job five years ago, WPR ended the event, which got its national start in New Orleans and is now celebrated in many other cities to mark the March birthday of Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach.

Yet it is not as if Fischer Hoyt didn’t already have enough on her plate.

She is a very accomplished and very busy violist.

As a modern violist, she plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and is a founding member of the Ancora String Quartet (below), with which she still plays after 17 seasons. She is also  a member of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

As a specialist on the baroque viola, she is a member (below far left) of the Madison Bach Musicians who also plays for the Handel Aria Competition and the Madison Early Music Festival.

In addition, she is a private teacher who finds time to attend early music festivals around the country.

To get an idea of what she has done to put Bach Around the Clock (BATC) on a stable footing here, read the update posting from a couple of days ago:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/12/28/classical-music-bach-around-the-clock-2018-is-set-for-march-10-here-is-a-year-end-update-with-more-impressive-news/

Not only did Fischer Hoyt obtain the participation of some 80 performers — students and teachers, amateurs and professionals, individuals and groups– she also got cooperation, facilities, performers and help from St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent Street, on Madison’s near west side.

She obtained donations of money and even food to stage the event.

She herself played in the event that drew hundreds of listeners.

She lined up local sound engineers who recorded the entire event, which was then broadcast in parts by Rich Samuels (below) on WORT-FM 89.9 and streamed live as far away as London.

She served as an emcee who also conducted brief interviews about the music with the many performers (below right, with flutist Casey Oelkers)

Recognizing she can’t keep doing so much by herself, the energetic Fischer Hoyt has turned BATC into a more formal and self-sustaining organization with a board of directors.

She has sought advice from experts about Bach and Bach festivals.

She applied for and won one of five national grants from Early Music America in Boston.

She has consulted legal help to make BATC a nonprofit charitable organization, which should help guarantee a steady stream of funding.

And artistically, she has added a back-up mini-orchestra to accompany singers and instrumentalists.

The event this year is on Saturday, March 10, a little early for Bach’s 333rd birthday (March 31, 1685) but a smart decision to avoid spring break in the schools and at the UW, and to help recruit the many performers who are also important, if secondary,  Musicians of the Year.

But the center of the event, the force holds it all together, is Marika Fischer Hoyt and all the hard work, done over a long time, that she has invested in making Bach Around the Clock a permanent part of Madison’s classical music schedule and cultural scene.

If you didn’t go last year, try it this year. It is wonderful, inspiring and enjoyable.

Please join The Ear in congratulating Marika Fischer Hoyt for making Bach Around the Clock the success it now is and giving it the future it now has. Leave your comments about her and BATC in the COMMENT section.

To celebrate, here is a YouTube video of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 by Johann Sebastian Bach:


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